Women in STEM

Being a Woman in STEM Isn’t Easy, But Here Are 4 Tips from a Google Employee

Most of us are aware that women are still woefully underrepresented in the STEM fields. Representation tends to be even lower for black women, who make up approximately 1 percent of the engineering workforce and 3 percent of the computing workforce. Given these numbers, it is too rare that we come across minority women who have managed to push past the challenges and remain in STEM fields for the majority of their professional lives. So, when I saw a recent tweet from Keita Wangari, a 2009–10 AAUW Community Development Grantee and a new Google staff recruit (yes, they contacted her!), I knew I had to find a way to talk with her.

Keita Wangari attending a Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

Wangari’ s journey to working at a top-notch tech company like Google has not been an easy one. I was interested in finding out how, as a mom and the primary breadwinner for her family, she managed to continue working in the male-dominated world of computer technology, advance her career, complete a master’s degree, and publish a scholarly article, all at the same time!

Halfway into our conversation, I was not only deeply inspired by this awesome woman but I also came away with a few gems to share. How did she do it? It came down to four fundamentals.

1. Get over the imposter syndrome.

It’s important that women, particularly those of us who also fall under the category of minority, find a way to address and overcome the feeling of not belonging. In Wangari’s opinion, women “tend to be fearful that making a mistake is going to be taken as [a] statement that we don’t belong where we are, [even though] that is not the case.”

Wangari has been no stranger to feeling out of place or having her presence questioned. When she landed her first engineering job as a 20-something with a degree in airway science, two male engineers at the company refused to work with her. The two men were subsequently fired and, despite the incident, Wangari stayed on at the company as an engineer and even put programming skills she had acquired as a student to work by decreasing the debugging time of one of the company’s core programs by 80 percent. While this work was outside her job description, she went the extra mile to show that she indeed did belong at the company and, most importantly, that she had a lot to offer.

2. Drown out the inner critic.

Wangari says it’s important to learn to operate with our inner critic, understanding that it does not necessarily go away. “It’s a challenge,” she admits. “[Women] speak up less because we feel like we have to be right all the time — because we feel like we have to have the answers all of the time.” She had to learn to stop “mentally obsessing” about what she did or did not say in a meeting, turn off the voice inside her head, and move on. When she can’t turn off the voice in her head, it’s about “learning to operate with it.”

3. Be creative and persevere.

Wangari’s story shows that perseverance and creativity pay off. Several times in her life, she has had to employ her technological skills to get her to the next step. One such instance happened after her husband had been laid off from his job. Strapped for cash and having taken a few years off from corporate work to be a stay-at-home mom, she was forced to look for creative ways to support her family. So she started to research the websites of local mom-and-pop shops and plan site redesigns. Then, computer in hand, she would visit the locations, present the newly designed website, and offer a flat fee well below market level. Her ingenuity paid off and allowed her to keep her children in their school.

4. Continue your education!

Although Wangari recalls attending “one of the worst high schools” growing up, she always felt that she needed education to open doors for her. When she returned to corporate work after four years of being a stay-at-home mom and working from home, Wangari’s salary wasn’t what it once was and her tech skills were outdated. So she decided to pursue a master’s degree online in human-computer interaction while working full time — a degree she was able to pursue thanks to her AAUW Career Development Grant. Over the course of her master’s program, she raised her salary by $20,000 by convincing her supervisors to let her implement some of what she was learning in her classes on the job. She also used her own vacation time and funds to attend Grace Hopper conferences just to have the opportunity to network and improve her technological skills. She recalls, “During the thesis phase of my program, there were bleary-eyed mornings where I told my children I was up all night researching search interfaces and justified it by telling them, who knows, maybe one day Mommy will work at Google!”

So far, it seems, those long nights and years of sacrifices have paid off for Wangari and her family. Hopefully her hard work will smooth the path for other women to follow.

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